Erin Ann Thomas, winner of the 2013 Evans Handcart Prize for her book, “Coal in Our Veins,” presented on Sept. 19 in the Utah State University Eastern student center’s alumni room.
The event, sponsored by the USU history department and the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, was free and open to the public.
Thomas’s book weaves historical research with her family’s personal account of the industry and opens with a description of a vintage, four-inch tall cylindrical Justrite carbide lamp that rests on the author’s bookshelf. The lamp is one a miner in the 1930s would have used and serves to remind Thomas of the country’s longstanding relationship with coal — including her own. She grew up in Orem, Utah, the daughter of Welsh coal miners.
“I was always conscious that my surname had been passed down through generations of strong-backed and rough-handed men,” Thomas writes. “I have always been proud of this fact, preferring my ancestry of Welsh coal miners over a lineage of kings.”
She described walking though O’Hare Airport during a layover in 2006 and being confronted by a news story that would alter her path. Television screens showed the families of 13 miners trapped below the surface of the Earth in West Virginia. In Thomas’s luggage was a Christmas gift — a binder containing the genealogy of her family. She spent the next four years delving into the history of coal.
Hers is a journey of discovery that takes her from Wales to West Virginia, from Washington to Carbon County. She writes with a journalist’s determination and a memoirist’s eye for detail, weaving a narrative of the twin destinies of coal and her family, according to a USU Press summary.
"Coal is implicated in the simplest modern gesture—turning on a light switch—and Thomas finds a depth of history in this gesture,” USU Press states. “Welsh miners, the Sago disaster of 2006, the Castle Gate explosion of 1924, Washington bureaucracy, and industry complacency, all these play a role as her story unfolds. And behind it all, Thomas reminds us, is the light switch.”